Her First DARPATech

Back story

PHOTO: Jean Kumagai

Sally Adee had barely taken off her coat after arriving for her first day of work at IEEE Spectrum last June when she began pleading to attend DARPATech, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s convention. Her request was a little odd—most writers find obscure conferences they absolutely must attend in Honolulu, Paris, Tokyo, or maybe Vegas. Adee, a self-described defense nerd, really wanted to go to DARPATech—but never dreamed we’d actually send her.

We did. Two months later she found herself at the Anaheim Marriott in California, across the street from Disneyland, whose attractions compared poorly with the festivities at DARPATech as far as Adee was concerned. Among the 3000 defense contractors, academics, researchers, and DARPA program managers wandering the enormous hotel, Adee felt like she was at a whole different level of theme park. Instead of cotton candy, ­attendees carried Starbucks cups and DARPATech M&Ms tinted green, yellow, and a sickly, translucent white. The 2007 conference kicked off DARPA’s 50th anniversary, and speakers were introduced with flashing lights and pounding rock music. Some of the music choices were puzzling—one program director jogged to the podium accompanied by a song that began ”It’s no surprise to me; I am my own worst enemy.” The secretary of the Navy was introduced to the chords of the Violent Femmes’ ”Blister in the Sun.”

Adee spent a lot of time ­hoarding swag—jealously guarding her stash of pixelated-­camouflage Tâ''shirts, light-up pens, ­temporary tattoos, and commemorative DARPA playing cards—and ­feeling a bit like Hester Prynne, wearing the scarlet badge that ­distinguished journalists from the defense contractors, who wore baby blue and duckling yellow tags. ”I gained some insight into what it felt like to be a leper in the 1890s,” she recalls, describing scientists and contractors halting conversations midsentence and turning away whenever she approached, dense crowds parting in her path. ”Or maybe I’m thinking of Moses.”

Inside the exhibit hall, the few reporters on-site could examine the latest and greatest bionic-arm ­prosthetics, watch robo-geckos climbing up ­vertical glass panes, and cheer on an autonomous ­learning robot called Little Dog that hobbled over treacherous rubble.

Sure, there were a few disappointments, like the 3-D glasses Adee is shown modeling above. When she tried them on, she was disheartened to find herself ­gazing at a PowerPoint presentation.

But even the best exhibits paled in comparison with the gossip floating around the conference. One especially juicy item led to Adee’s story in this month’s issue, ”The Hunt for the Kill Switch.”

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